5 Ways to be a Happier Teacher This Year

Target already has their back to school stuff out in stores. Early back to school sales should be considered criminal for the trauma it gives teachers who feel like they just started summer. But as we near August, even I have to admit, we’re getting closer to the start of school. As my schedule starts to fill up with meetings and school prep, I want to also spend some time prepping for how I can support my own mental health this year.

This school year will be year nine of teaching for me. I find that super strange. It still feels like I’m only a couple years in, but turns out I’m knocking on the door of a decade. I definitely don’t have things all figured out yet (spoiler, I never will) and even if I thought I did, COVID taught educators everywhere that there is always more to learn. However, there are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way, imparted by teachers much wiser than I. So here are five things that I will be striving to do this year in order to be a happier teacher–hope they help you too!

  1. Build routines for you-time

I’ll be honest with this one, if I go to one more PD that makes reference to “mindfulness” or “take time from you” I might roll my eyes and stop listening. Because yes, that advice is great, but I for some reason cannot hear that advice from someone who is not actively teaching. I agree that making time for yourself is important, but I’ll go a step further and say you need to build a routine of time for yourself. This looks different for everyone so I can’t completely prescribe it, but whatever your thing is, make sure you schedule a time to do it every day. Things that have worked for me in the past include:

  1. Reading my Bible each morning. I was probably the most effective teacher I have ever been when I committed to reading a Psalm each morning while my coffee was brewing. Just one Psalm was all it took to recenter my mind on why I was dedicating so much energy into loving students. This is something I really got away from but want to reincorporate this year. I think a tool that I might use is an app called Lectio 365. Each day, they have two devotionals (one for the morning and one for the night) that include scripture reading and a guided prayer. The coolest part? You can just push play and it’ll read it to you with some background spa-like music. It’s super calming and very relaxing. Even if you just push play as you start your commute, starting each day in the Word is a great way to recenter yourself. If you aren’t really religious, maybe find a meditation app that works for you. Something about quieting your mind (aka not running through your daily to-dos and lesson plans) is a great way to get the morning going.
  2. Working out. I have gone through phases of doing this well and also phases of not doing this at all. But when I have a routine that involves some movement, I am a happier person. If you’ve got some coworkers who also like working out, why not play a youtube yoga workout in your classroom after school? A few of my friends and I did Insanity workouts in my classroom a couple days a week and it was amazing! A couple years ago, I actually joined a gym, and I found that if I took my workout clothes to school and changed into them at the end of the day, it almost forced me to stop at the gym on the way home. Otherwise, on the drive home, I would convince myself that I could just head home and take a nap. In What Happened to You by Oprah, I learned that for humans, rhythm is regulating. That’s why a workout makes us feel so much better. The repeated movements help us regulate after hard days. Highly recommend it.
  3. Reading for pleasure. This is one that I wish I had started in my first year of teaching. I was so swamped trying to preview and read books before teaching them, that I totally neglected my own reading. I learned from my dear friend Gloria (my ultimate teaching role model) that she read a little bit of a book each night. If she could, she would try to get a whole chapter in, but even when she couldn’t, she’d at least get a couple pages. I can’t count the number of teachers who wish they had a chance to read more for pleasure and not just for work. So make it a priority. Read just a little bit every night. Make it part of the routine.

Those are a few that worked for me. I’ve done well with them and also really fallen away from them at other times. But the more fun things for me that were built into my routine, the better I felt. So find the things that bring you joy and add a little bit of them to each day.

  1. Set Yourself Time Boundaries

This one is something all first year teachers need to hear. But this is also something that all teachers need a reminder of each and every year. There has to be a point during your day when you turn off school. I read a joke somewhere about how Teaching is one of those weird professions where you have to do work at night so that you have work to do during work. And then you do that work at work so that you can go home to finish the work. The thing is, there is always more that could get done. So as teachers, we have to figure out where to set our boundaries. During the first few years as a teacher, this is harder because you don’t have materials already made. But I learned when I was drowning those first years, that if I could get “enough” ready so that I had an idea of mostly what was on the lesson plan for the next day, then that was good enough. If I had things for students and could make it through the next 24 hours, then that would be fine. We need time to have families and friends and invest our time in them too. 

A related point on this one is about grading. I used to dread grading essays because they would take forever. I also used to get a ton of quizzes all at once and hated how long it took–until I learned some tricks. First, when it comes to essays, limit your feedback. A fantastic colleague of mine, challenged me to rethink the amount of feedback I gave to students. I used to take an essay and a pen and mark up grammar mistakes, unexplained details, poorly cited quotes–you name it. My coworker asked me to ask my class how many students actually read the feedback I left them, and how many students just flipped to the back for the grade and called it good. I had about two kids per class who sometimes glanced at my notes. So I changed my approach. I now dedicate more time to giving feedback in the writing process (we all know that feedback is important, but it is way more important during the process rather than just at the end). This is where conferencing with students works great. Or, if you use Google classroom and assign a blank google doc for students’ essays, you can make a copy for each kid which then allows you to see how far each student has gotten. Giving feedback during the process gives students an opportunity to correct mistakes before they even turn it in. When they do turn it in, you direct students to put a star at the top of theirs if they are looking for feedback. When grading, you just use your rubric and grade the essays, only leaving feedback on a couple essays and you save SO MUCH TIME.

When it comes to quizzes or grammar tests, use Google forms! It takes some practice to get used to them if you’ve never used them, but under settings, you can make it a quiz. This allows you to assign point values and give an answer key. The computer will grade the quiz for you (except for free response or extended response answers, but if you only have to hand grade a couple questions instead of all of them, you save so much time). This is an amazing tool. It even allows you to make it so students can’t have multiple tabs open–yay for stopping cheaters!

  1. Build Relationships with Your Coworkers

This one will get you through anything. Misery loves company, and when you are a teacher, you are guaranteed to have some miserable days. Hopefully not many! But a nasty parent email or a trouble maker you had high hopes for but ends up flopping, might get you down. Your coworkers get it. They’ve been there too. Become friends with the people you work with.  My coworkers have gotten me through my toughest days. Sometimes you just need to be able to send a vent text to the teacher group chat, and on a Friday after a long week, it is always nice to grab a beer with someone who totally understands. Build connections and relationships with your coworkers. Being friends with the people you work with will 100% make you a happier teacher.

  1. Know When to Avoid the Lunch Room

This one is important and totally depends on your school and also depends on the day. I’m also pretty sure that this idea gets brought up in most teacher prep courses. The lunch room can be a great place to build friendships and relax (see point three), but it can also be a spinning vortex of nasty, negative, not-niceness. Be aware of the dynamic in your lunch room and be selective about when or whether you go. You don’t need to be there every day (for some of us, that 20 minutes of alone time is recharging and wonderful) or even at all. Don’t feel pressured to be at lunch. Spend your lunch doing what is best for you. I know of many teachers (myself included) who might eat lunch in a classroom with just a friend or two. I know a couple teachers who open their classrooms to students during lunch because those moments of relationship building are fueling for them. And I also know of teachers who prefer to eat lunch on their own. It’s tricky to navigate and figure all that out, but sometimes, avoiding the lunch room can help you be a much happier teacher. 

  1. Leave Perfectionism Behind and Embrace Improvementism 

This was one of my favorite things that Dave Stuart Jr. published during COVID. I literally printed his statement and taped it to my wall (if you’re a teacher looking for some great practices and advice from an actual teacher, definitely look into his blog). As teachers we want our lessons to be perfect. So perfect that every single student completely understands, learns, and remembers our activities and assignments. During the beginning of COVID, when we were all still unsure of what the school year looked like, Dave Stuart Jr. told his blog followers to leave all that perfectionism behind and embrace improvementism (not a word, but a great concept). I loved it when it came to the last couple years, but I still love it now and wish that I had heard this my first few years of teaching. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just work toward improving a little each day.

So those are the five big tips I have for you. Again, I gained these from some stellar colleagues and teachers. And I don’t do these perfectly at all. But they are great goals for me and hopefully they can help you too!

**Sidenote, if you’d like to support my classroom and students. This is my Amazon wishlist for this year. Every year, a handful of my high-interest books, all of my fidget toys, and many of my decorations get lost or broken. The love and support of family and friends is the only way I could keep my classroom funded. Thanks in advance if you’re willing to help out 🙂 **

My First Teaching Job

As schools are wrapping up and summer vacation is starting, I know of many districts who are out interviewing new candidates for a number of positions. COVID definitely took its toll on the teaching profession, and I think there are more vacancies now than most districts counted on. As recent graduates look to step into a teaching position, I am reminded of my first job as a teacher. And honestly, it’s a story. 

When I tell my teaching friends at my current district stories about my first three years as a teacher, I get some shocked/confused looks. Those years were grueling, they were beautiful, they were draining, they were unsustainable, they were life-changing. Overall, I wouldn’t change those first three years for anything. But holy wow, am I glad I don’t have to do that all over again. It was definitely a unique experience that I hope most first year teachers do not ever have to face.

To start off, I graduated from college in 2013 and was not convinced that teaching was what I wanted to do. My college was getting rid of the education program so all of my courses were very small, and let’s just say my teacher education was lacking. I had also recently taken a big dive into my faith and was a little unsure about working in a public school where I couldn’t bring up God. I was a bit lost, so I moved to Grand Rapids where all my friends were, and started looking for a job outside of teaching.

I ended up landing a job as a parapro/online class monitor in a charter school. I worked with three different history teachers as a support staff (history was my minor and I also passed a test so I have a teaching certification in both English and history). It took a few months, but as I sat in their classes and worked more closely with students who had IEPs or were learning the English language, I realized I did want to be a teacher. When a student I worked with, who barely spoke English, scored an 80% on a quiz and asked me how to say in English that he was proud of himself–I literally couldn’t even. I finally fully knew that education was the field I was meant for.

That summer I began to scour the internet for teaching jobs. I applied literally anywhere and everywhere. A friend sent me her resume format that she was convinced got her her teaching job. I emulated it and edited the crap out of it, sending it to anyone who had a secondary position in English or History. I cast a wide net, but I honestly felt that God was calling me to come back to Grand Rapids. I had just gotten invested in my church and I was just starting to put down roots. I wanted to be back in the city, but I wasn’t sure where or if I could actually find a job.

Finally, at the end of July, I interviewed for a position at a small pre-k-12 public charter school in the heart of Grand Rapids. It was a group interview and I was so nervous because the other woman they were interviewing seemed much more experienced than I was. I did my best and was so hopeful on my way out. All I knew about the job was that it was a high school English position in Grand Rapids, which sounded perfect for me. As I was driving back to my summer job, I got the phone call that they’d like to hire me. I was ecstatic!

This school had two weeks of Professional Development before the school year started Unfortunately, during that time, I did not yet have a home to rent in GR–though I did have roommates I planned to live with. For those two weeks of PD, I couch surfed at the home of a group of my guy friends. Living out of a suitcase and trying to dress semi-professional, I thought two weeks of PD was normal. Turns out most schools with unions have only a couple of days for summer PD, maybe a whole week of meetings if they’re super intense. I thought two weeks must be normal, which now feels a little naive.

It was about the second or third day of PD that I was finally shown my classroom. I was so excited to decorate (always my priority) and I asked the counselor which English classes I would be teaching. It was then that he shared my schedule. I found out I was the only high school English teacher in the school. I must have missed it in the interview, or maybe they hadn’t even thought to clarify; but I found out I would be teaching 9th, 10th, 11th, AND 12th grade English. I tried my best to keep the shock and dread from showing on my face. I was then told that this year, they were going to try out AP classes. On top of those four classes, I would also need to teach AP Literature and Composition.

So I took a deep breath, trying to play it cool (I’m a big advocate of fake it until you make it) and I asked where the curriculum guides could be found. I could see piles of a few class sets of novels (like maybe four or five different novels) and I was very confused about where the rest of the class sets were if I was going to need to teach four different grade levels–maybe the books were stored in a book room somewhere? Turns out the only books to be had were already in my classroom. The counselor took a look at me, then glanced at the open door, and said, “Don’t tell anyone I said this,” (since neither of us work at this school any longer, I think it’s ok to share now) “but the teacher before you was great with kids, and terrible at teaching. You might find some curriculum on the drive, but you need to throw it out and start over.”

Again, I was playing it cool. But my heart had literally dropped to my stomach and I wanted to throw up. I had spent a little less than one semester as a student teacher in 9th and 10th grade English and suddenly I had been hired for a job in which I needed to write common-core-standards-aligned-curriculums for FOUR different classes? While also figuring out a course audit for an AP class (which admin at this school did not even know was a requirement)? And I had less than two weeks to do it? By myself? When I didn’t even know where I was going to be living???

I don’t think this is a realistic task for any teacher, let alone someone in their first year of education. Looking back, this is literally insane. But I also had no clue that it was such an unrealistic expectation so I just sucked it up and acted like I could do it. The way I looked at it, this must just be what teachers did (spoiler: this is not what teachers do). I guess that the real benefit of this insanity was that I could choose units and texts that I really enjoyed teaching. I had a lot of freedom. Admin had told me they would order whichever class texts I wanted. But I had so little guidance and so little help, it was all up to my own standards. Luckily I have pretty high standards, and the common core website became my best friend. It was super overwhelming though. There’s an old analogy that teachers use that has only made sense within the context of my first year of teaching. I was literally trying to build an airplane while already in flight.

I started this craziness by deciding which two novels/dramas I would do each semester for each course. I laid out an idea that I thought would work and figured I could tweak it as I went. I then tried to think through what type of test or essay I would do for each and tried to align standards to each unit. It was overwhelming because I also knew that I would need to fill in each unit with activities and projects. I tried to ignore that for the time being though. I then reached out to my old high school teachers to ask if I could beg, borrow, and steal their AP course audits. They graciously emailed me copies and added some encouragement. It was so kind of them. The real negative of all this was that I was trying to write curriculums for students whom I had never met. 

In retrospect, that whole start I had is a terrible way to approach curriculum maps. I had no idea what my students’ gaps in knowledge might be, what their interests were, or which books they had already been exposed to. When it was all said and done though, the curriculum maps that I created (by the end of the year of course. No surprises it was slow-going when I was also trying to prep a classroom and teach students) were really not too bad. My assumption was that I had done a terrible job since I’d done them on my own with so little experience. And while yes, any curriculum benefits from multiple perspectives, the curriculums I came up with were fairly rigorous and did actually hit most of the standards (I couldn’t hit any of the standards that required technology–we had very limited access to technology at my school).

As you might imagine, I sat through PD from 9-3 each day and not much of that time was given to teachers to work in their rooms. So I’d arrive around 8 each morning to get a head start. Then I would hang around until 4/4:30 each afternoon before heading back to my guy friends’ house for dinner, rental home hunting, and more school prep work throughout the evening. I had literally no life outside of work (which, to be honest, was a theme for me throughout my years at this school).

A saving grace during this time was meeting a few coworkers who are still close friends today. My favorite moment was about a week before school started when we had a chance to be in our classrooms. The Principal brought the middle school English teacher down to my room to meet me. She is an amazing woman who had literally come out of retirement to teach the students at this school. But at the time, all I saw was a veteran teacher who I was worried might be a little old-school in her approach to teaching. Boy, was I wrong. I found out later that she was also wary of me, because she was worried I’d be like the previous teacher who had hardly taught–specifically refusing to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. She came down with the principal to persuade me to actually do some teaching; but as soon as she asked about the texts I was thinking of teaching, I enthusiastically jumped in with how excited I was to teach novels, including To Kill a Mockingbird. We hit it off right away talking about which texts would be great in 8th grade versus 9th grade. 

The principal, whose experience was in elementary education, quickly made his exit when he realized we got along and he had nothing to contribute to our conversation. It was pretty well known throughout the school that this middle school English teacher was a force to be reckoned with. She is one of the greatest advocates for students I have ever met, loving them while also holding them accountable. And she sure wouldn’t beat around the bush to put someone in their place who wasn’t working for the students’ best interests. We became fast friends. I learned so much from the way she approached education, and I attribute much of who I am as a teacher to her. She really is my educational role model. Meeting her during my scramble to figure out what and how to teach may have been the silver lining of the whole experience.

I also met the high school social studies teacher and became good friends with him. He was also new that year, and the two of us teamed up to really get our high school students writing. Every day, I’d arrive at 6:45 (school started at 8:00) and his car and the middle school English teacher’s car would already be there. 

As the year got started, I also got to know the middle school social studies teacher. We hardly ever worked with each other until our second and third years (our classrooms were on opposite sides of the building), but every night when I walked out of the building at 4:30 or so, I’d walk past his classroom and he’d still be there. We were usually the last two cars in the parking lot. We’d wave at one another–both in misery. 

They say misery loves company. And I would definitely add that misery breeds friendship. I’ve been friends with those three teachers since 2014. One of their daughters was even the flower girl in my wedding. Those three got me through three very challenging years, and I am so grateful to them for that.

Anyways, the two weeks of training trickled by, and it was about time to get the year started. I learned that 100% of our students received free breakfast and lunch. I learned that we offered an alternative school to the schools of GRPS, supporting students who were failing at GRPS schools. I learned that 75%+ of my students were ELLs and a number would not speak any English at all. I learned that we had had a lot of behavioral problems and some gang issues in the past. 

I realized that I would have A LOT to learn.

The weekend before school started, I was thankfully able to move into a home with three of my friends. This was a great relief, but also meant that I would miss out on some work time as I juggled trying to move all of my belongings into a new home–which included assembling bunk beds in my shared bedroom.

Yes. I was a professional starting my first real career, and I had bunk beds in my room. My three roommates were seriously amazing and such a great support during this time, but the bunk bed thing is still hilarious to me. We saved a lot of money that year in rent, but that house was a pretty tight fit.

School started and I stepped into my classroom. I wore a pencil skirt and a button up with (fake) pearls on my first day of school–a nod to my sorority years in college. My curriculums were maybe a third of the way drafted, and I basically had plans for just the first day of school. I arrived early to school and for the first time in my life, I stepped into a room as the teacher.

And thus began three years in which I constantly felt like I was not doing enough. Imposter syndrome hit hard and I kept waiting for the principal to realize I wasn’t the right hire or enough of a teacher for this position.

I have so much more to share, but this is already too long. So “to be continued” on my actual classroom experiences (find it here!), but that was how I kicked off my first year–absolutely, and unrealistically overwhelmed. I was trying to figure out lessons for five different classes each day, with five hardly formed curriculums, while getting to know students who were immediately suspicious of an overly optimistic, smiley, white girl. 

If you are currently in that position, overwhelmed with what your first year of education will be like, take a deep breath. You have people who love and support you. I hope that you will find amazing coworkers like the ones I found. Our coworkers are our best resource. Rely on others and you will get through this. I promise.

As for me, I was definitely fumbling through that first year and faking it hard–and you know what, that was really ok. Because I was giving it my all and trying to help out my students. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

The Fumbling Farmhouse

Oh, the Fumbling Farmhouse. I’ll be honest, this name was pretty much the first one I came up with when I decided I should start a blog. But then of course, I spent hours second guessing and considering a bunch of other names. I just couldn’t find one that fit as well as The Fumbling Farmhouse. I think it sums up what I’m trying to do with this. Plus, I’m a sucker for some alliteration.

I want this blog to be a therapeutic place for me to do some writing, but I also want this to be a place where people can laugh at a story, relate to an experience, or learn some stuff. I’ve always loved writing and I’m a teacher at heart (and in reality–hehe). In the past, I have even toyed with the idea of blogging. My biggest issue back then was not being able to identify the point of me writing a blog. Like, what would I be sharing with the internet? What could I offer that wasn’t already in a million places? For some reason, now really feels like a good time for me to start a blog; so either I finally feel like my blog would have a purpose, or I’ve just gotten past the insecurity of writing something and sending it into the interwebs. Honestly could go either way.

The things I want to share here are some stories from my life. My husband J and I moved into an old farmhouse last winter (like built in the 1890s old) and that in itself is an adventure. I feel like we’re always working on some little something–or at least dreaming of what we’ll work on when lumber prices go back down–so I want to share those stories. We are DIY-ers because we are way too cheap to pay someone else to do something for us, especially if it is something that we can fumble through with the help of youtube (see where fumbling comes from yet?).  I figure that maybe reading this blog will be a refreshing way to hear from a couple of people who have no idea what they are doing, but are also determined not to pay someone else who does. Hopefully that’s relatable. We also suddenly have property now, so I built and planted a garden this year. It’s only June, but so far we’ve had moderate levels of successes and failures. I’ll tell you what I did that worked, and I’ll also own my absolute failures. I have very little idea of what I’m doing, I’m basically just trying to follow my grandmother’s directions. Grandma’s advice>Google.

I also teach high school English full time and I work part time in student ministries for my church. My first three years in education were pretty unique as far as teaching experiences go (more stories on that later), and in all reality, teenagers are just unpredictable. Every day in either job is a new adventure. I’m hoping to be able to share the hilarious, the powerful, the painful, the random bits of advice I wish I’d had, etc. etc. When I describe myself as an educator, I often label myself as a Type-B teacher. I come off very Type-A–I over plan, I have Google Docs on Google Docs all organized in in-depth folders, I go to all the extra training–you get the picture. But once I’m in a classroom or in front of kids? There is just no telling what will happen. I’m all for trying out new things, and I’ll be real when I say some of those things have failed miserably. I am the queen of planning out a lesson, and then winging it hard. I fumble and bumble my way through the school year. But in the end, I think a lot of the students learn some stuff, and I for sure grow and learn a lot each year.

So that’s kind of the background of my purpose here and where the name came from. I tried thinking of ways to incorporate faith because it is so important in our lives, but the “faithful” or “faith-filled” farmhouse is already taken. And Fumbling, Faithful Farmhouse is just way too long and alliterative. The longer I’ve sat with the name, the more I feel like, yup, this fits me and fits what I’m trying to accomplish.

I’m glad you’re here. I hope you stay or look around. It’ll be an adventure.

Here’s to the fumble!

P.S. Definitely “pardon my dust” as I try to kick this blog off and figure out how wordpress works. Again, not paying for the fancy tutorials, though I will be consulting youtube. It might take a minute to get this looking pretty. I’m fumbling through this blog process too! 🙂